Telling myself I didn’t love her and that I didn’t know how to love was bullshit. Because I realized that standing there in that shed reading words written by a child, that each word pumped through me and I clung to them. The funny things in the beginning to the small cruelties from other kids and their self-righteous parents. To the moment when her innocence was taken from her. She’d even stopped calling her diary Sparkle Rose. The entries had been short. To no one in particular. That was when it was definite . . . they’d finally destroyed her. The little girl from the first page was no more.

I would stand in front of a bullet for her. I’d pull a goddamn trigger for her and that planning would come soon enough. I didn’t know that little girl. She was gone long before I knew Scarlet. The woman she’d become, the fighter, that was who I loved.

Admitting it had made me feel weak before. I didn’t want to believe I could love a woman. I thought the only woman who was worthy of my love was my mother. I was so wrong. Scarlet was worthy of my love. I just wasn’t sure I was worthy of hers. When the world had continually let her down, so had I.

The Robertsdale City Limits sign was ahead. I glanced at my phone to see she’d still be at work another hour. I wasn’t waiting to see her. I needed to see her now. To make sure she was okay and that abruptly leaving this morning hadn’t upset her. I fucking needed her alone so I could hold her. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to let go once I did. If I could wrap her up in my arms and keep her there I could protect her. No one would hurt her again. I’d be sure of it. She’d be safe. She may never forget the past, but her future would be full of happiness. I would spend my entire life finding ways to make her smile. Real ways to make her smile. The kind that meant she might have broken inside but she could be whole again.

I didn’t know if that was possible. Where did I even start? There had to be websites with helpful information. Something I could read and get resources to guide me through this with her. Because she hadn’t faced it. She’d overcome it and gotten away from it, but not telling anyone meant she was holding it inside.

Parking my truck, I headed inside, my strides so long and swift I should have been running. I wanted to run. Bust into that diner and grab her up and shield her from anything else this life wanted to hurl at her.

I didn’t look at the few tables with customers left. My gaze swept over them as I scanned the place for Scarlet.

“You can wait outside,” a male voice said with force. I shifted my focus to see Fuel or Gasoline or whatever the fuck his name was and frowned.

“Where’s Scarlet?” It wasn’t a question as much as it was a demand.

“I said, you can wait outside,” he repeated, and the motherfucker actually took a step toward me. Like he was going to force me outside.

I continued to frown at him. More confused than anything. “I’ll stay here, thanks. Where is Scarlet?” I was doing my best to remain calm. It wasn’t easy with the way my emotions had been brutalized today.

“That’s not your business,” he said, taking another step toward me. I didn’t move. I was curious if he was planning on getting in my face.

“Scarlet is and will always be my business,” I informed him. The calm even tones even surprised me. It took me a moment to process why I wasn’t planting my fist in his dimpled face. But it hit me and I chuckled. I didn’t know I had it in me to fucking laugh at all.

“You think it’s funny? What you did?” his voice raised and his eyes shot daggers at me. Still, I had no desire to hurt him. Not even an ounce of fight. I didn’t want to hurt him because he was protecting her. She’d had little to none of that in her life. Now that I knew just how badly she needed it and been without. I couldn’t be mad at anyone for giving that gift to her. He was there for her. He was wrong thinking he neededd to protect her from me, but he didn’t know that. My leaving had upset her this morning.

Guilt for leaving her like that only made me more desperate to see her. “I need to see Scarlet. I realize you are trying to protect her and I thank you for that. But you don’t have to protect her from me.”

The guy laughed this time. A hard, unamused laugh. His eyes remained cold and fixed on me. This was more than just a friendly protecting her situation. He had feelings for Scarlet. I couldn’t blame him there but, I’d be damned it I was going to let another man move in on my girl. “You’re an asshole that does nothing but upset her. Why don’t you get the hell away from her? Let her move on.”

If this was the me that left this morning, the guy who was too fucking afraid to admit I loved Scarlet, then maybe I would agree with him. But I wasn’t that guy. Not anymore. It shouldn’t take stories of real life monsters and horror to wake me the hell up. Yet it had. My shallow life had been one with little resistance.

How could I believe for one moment that I’d hurt my own twin brother for a girl I wasn’t in love with? That should have been one hell of a bright neon light flashing in my face. But no. I’d told myself Scarlet had been an addiction.

“I’ve made mistakes. More than I have time to stand here and list. But I’m not leaving here. And I’m sure as hell not leaving her. Ever.”

“You fucking left—”

“Diesel leave it.” Scarlet’s voice cut him off and I quickly turned to see her standing behind us. Her hands on her hips. Her mouth turned down at the corners and pain in her eyes. Fuck, I abhorred seeing pain there. Never again. I never wanted to see her unhappy again.

“Hey,” was all I could manage to choke out past the emotion squeezing my throat like a vice. I moved toward her and she put up both hands to stop me.

“No.” Her voice was firm. It wavered but she was hiding it the best she could.

As much as I wanted her tucked safely against my chest, I couldn’t reach for her. Not yet. Not when she looked like she may slap my face. I would take that slap from her gladly if it made her feel better.

“I bought a truck”—I took a measured breath and continued—“I quit my job. My things are in the truck.”

Her eyes widened and her lips parted slightly. “What?” she whispered.

“If this is where you are, then it’s where I want to be.”

Scarlet

I HAD HEARD of people having those moments where they are completely speechless. No words could form. Their mouths won’t move. Not even a grunt. I didn’t believe that was realistic. I mean who can’t at least make a grunt?

I stood corrected. It’s possible. Because I wasn’t sure oxygen was even moving through my lungs. Shock could do many things to a person. This must be one of them. It only lasted a few moments. Then the fear I misunderstood settled in. That made more sense. Bray had said something that I heard incorrectly.

He moved toward me and I watched, my head tilting as he drew closer to I could keep eye contact. I was waiting for them to twinkle with laughter from his cruel joke. That was more Bray-like than this man who I thought had just said he wanted to be where I was.

Loving him, needing him, it was all so hard to do. He made it impossible not to want him. When he was sweet I clung to it hoping the moment never ended, but it always did. Then I was left hollow from the experience that was all too fleeting.

“This sure looks like it’s gonna end with roses and chocolate, but I need these customers taken care of before they all get up and walk out,” Ethel’s voice rang out over the dining room. Startled, I gasped and spun around. I’d forgotten where we were. What I was supposed to be doing. Everything. Bray did that to me. And how I hated it.

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